Cloud City – Reactor Control Room

The whole Vader/Luke duel in The Empire Strikes Back is fantastic, if you ask me. It’s got the best fight choreography and stunt work of any fight in the original trilogy, not to mention the beautiful cinematography and perfect pacing. Of course, the duel starts in the carbon freezing chamber and ends on the reactor shaft gantry where Vader reveals the horrible truth of Luke’s parentage. But right in the middle lies another Cloud City location, one of my favorites: the reactor control room.

Built around this time 40 years ago in Stage 1 at Elstree Studios, this set comprised the underbelly of the carbon freezing chamber, the hallway where Luke flies out the big circular window, and a metallic tunnel that connects those two areas. I love how quietly eerie these areas are as Luke creeps through, searching for Vader. And thank the maker – Star Wars: The Blueprints documents this set pretty thoroughly with plans, elevations, and details.

The first step in recreating this set was to bring all those technical drawings into 3D space together with the correct scale and orientation and location. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly where this set was situated inside Stage 1, or at what angle. I took a best guess, taking comfort in the fact that the drawings would at least all be the right sizes and they’d be positioned correctly relative to each other. In Blender’s viewport, that looked something like this:

Kind of a mess, but it’s just the kind of mess I needed to bring this thing to life. From there, I was able to begin building the rostrums (platforms) upon which the set…sat.

The L-shaped rostrum on the left was 16 feet above the studio floor and it supported the area beneath the carbon freezing chamber that Luke drops into after Vader falls. The larger 10-foot-high rostrum below was for the area with the big circular window and the hallways. (They had to build the set elevated above the floor to accommodate the grates that slide shut after Luke passes through the tunnel; these were a practical effect, so the bottom grate had to fit below the set.)

You can also see that I’d already started working on the walls of the set by this point, and the progress continued pretty quickly:

You can see the aluminum tunnel or tube that connects the two main areas of the set. I never realized from watching the film that it was angled downward! (Fun fact: it’s a 13-degree angle, which comes out to 77 degrees from vertical…now, where have I heard the number 77 in Star Wars history before?)

I like that render. I was trying to roughly match the angle from which we see Luke enter the tube. (The lighting is too bright; it’s since been dialed down to match the film.)

Below, you can see more progress on various areas of the set, including a large, grayish-blue backdrop that in real life was painted to look like the immense reactor shaft outside the window:

All the work here was on the lower area of the set where most of this scene takes place. But then I hopped up to the other rostrum to work on the area beneath the carbon freezing chamber, and I got a surprise: there was more to that area than you can see in the film. This is all we’re ever given in the final cut:

Just a little bit of dark, greebly wall outside the mouth of the tube. But the technical drawings depict this area as a (section of a) circular passageway with a camera rostrum at one end and walls that increase in height as they get further away from the camera. This indicates that the filmmakers intended to get footage of Luke from that camera rostrum. It would have been an angle perpendicular to this one, looking down the passageway toward the left side of this shot. Sadly, I can’t find any behind-the-scenes shots of this area or anything, so all I have to go off of is the above shot and the technical drawings.

Gives some sense of what the area would have looked like, I think. But I’ll do you one better – here’s a shot approximating the unused angle I described above!

That’s the (incomplete) mouth of the aluminum tube near the center. I angled the camera so you can see the tops of the set walls. Notice how they increase in height, like I described.

The most recent step was to start the last major area of the set: the curved hallway seen behind Luke as we watch Vader approach him from over the Sith Lord’s shoulder. Unlike the rest of this set, this hallway was built with forced perspective – rather than following an actual circular path like it appears to, it’s scrunched up toward the back to look longer than it actually is. Here’s a view from within the set showing the illusion, followed by a view from above that gives a bit of a sense of how the passage shrinks away toward the back:

Lots of details are still missing, but all the major pieces are in place now, save for one: the big circular window that Luke gets sucked out of. The drawings just show a simpler rectangular window in that wall, so it’s going to take a little more work to replicate the final design seen in the film. More on that soon, I hope!

ANH Rebel Blockade Runner

Wow, I didn’t expect to wait so long before my second post here! Basically, I decided to start going chronologically through the original Star Wars, AKA A New Hope, doing one set at a time…and the first set ended up getting quite tricky. I’m talking, of course, about the Rebel blockade runner, Tantive IV – also known in the documents used by the filmmakers as the Rebel starfighter or Rebel spacefighter.

The main L-shaped hallway was not the problem; it started coming together quite quickly. I admit I was intimidated by the incredible work already done by fellow fans like Stinson Lenz, but I reminded myself that my aims are a little different: while others may (very understandably) focus purely on creating ultra-detailed recreations of these sets, my goal is to create somewhat simpler representations that all sit accurately in the real-world spaces of Elstree Studios. (I admit I have this dream of someday visiting the Tesco supermarket that now sits where stages 1-6 were situated and walking around to specific spots where scenes from the three films were shot, but that’s neither here nor there.)

As an example, here’s the blockade runner set beginning to form in stage 9, on the right. You can see the work from my last post in stage 7 on the left. Stage 8 currently sits empty in the middle, though eventually that will be occupied by things like the streets of Mos Eisley. (These three stages are actually housed in the same building; I’m just making basic representations of the stage interiors.)

What you can’t see here is that I even have aerial photos of Elstree underneath the entire model, both from modern day and from the 80s. These particular stages are still standing and in use, which is amazing, except that means they’re closed to the public. Maybe someday…anyway, here are more Tantive IV shots:

Again, that main hallway is not difficult. The drawings in Rinzler’s Star Wars: The Blueprints are detailed and thorough, and there’s ample reference from the film and from on-set photography.

The trouble was the side corridor, the one where Leia gives R2 the Death Star plans. You can see part of it starting to form in the last two renders. Unfortunately, this area of the set is not as well-documented in Rinzler’s book – the white hallway was actually a late addition, and the main drawing featured in the book focuses on that addition. Still, how hard could it be?

Well, pretty hard, as it turns out. The section you see in the above render was actually a revamp of the Millennium Falcon‘s main hold set, and I haven’t found many drawings of that set, either. I scoured the web for as many reference shots as I could find, but it just got too difficult. Different sources weren’t quite matching up, one of my biggest annoyances in any 3D modeling project. I also realized that the Falcon hold was on an elevated rostrum, but I didn’t know for sure whether the entire blockade runner set had been built like that too. Frustrated, I threw in the towel for a few weeks and worked on some music projects that I’d been neglecting.

Fortunately, I did start to get some inspiration again in the last few days, this time focusing on an area that’s well-documented in Rinzler’s book: the Cloud City reactor control room where Vader sends Luke flying out the window in The Empire Strikes Back. More on that in a future post!

The Beginning

When I discovered J. W. Rinzler’s Star Wars: The Blueprints, I instantly knew I was going to end up spending many hours in the immediate future trying to translate its technical drawings into 3D environments from the original Star Wars trilogy.

I’m all about reverse-engineering things that make me feel…feelings, a tendency that manifests in my various passions for music, science, theme park design, film production, etc. For the first part of this year, I used bits of down time to work on a 3D model of the changing designs of Hogwarts; you can find my progress in my other blog. That project is far from over, but recreating the worlds of Star Wars is occupying more of my time at the moment. After all, the technical drawings in this book (plus others I’ve found online) are the ones that were used to build the real-world sets for the films.

When my beautiful copy of Rinzler’s book arrived, the first challenge was immediately obvious: many of the coolest drawings spanned multiple adjacent pages, and the parts in the gutter between pages were difficult to see and impossible to scan. That soon led me down some paths I never thought I’d travel, but more on that in a later post. I first wanted to at least try out the concept. So I started with a drawing that fit all on one page: Obi-Wan’s house on Tatooine, AKA “Int. Cave Dwelling”.

Not too shabby. Actually, not nearly as shabby as old Ben’s house was designed to be, but I’m not trying to do much texturing or set dressing with this project. I’m more interested in breadth than in depth. For me, part of the fascination is in seeing exactly how these sets related to each other in space, and where they fit into the real world.

For instance, just over 43 years ago, this set was built in Stage 7 at Elstree Studios, a stage that still exists to this day. Two other sets from the original Star Wars also occupied Stage 7 at the same time, both from other parts of Tatooine: the homestead kitchen and the Tosche Station interior. (The latter didn’t make the final cut of the film.) I only have simplified plans for these, and no elevations, but I figured I’d get some basic representations of them in there for the purposes of visualization.

For example, let’s hop into Obi-Wan’s house, right around where Luke first activated his lightsaber, and turn around to face where the cameras were:

That’s the kitchen on the left and a bit of Tosche Station on the right. We’re just seeing the outer walls of the sets, though. The next render may help you visualize this a little better:

Hey, there we go! It’s all three sets, as they existed together in Stage 7, conveniently showing them all from the general directions seen in the film. Let’s also pull back for an aerial view:

I love how this exposes the forced perspective in the design of Obi-Wan’s house. The real-world building on Djerba Island that stood in as the exterior doesn’t taper like that – it’s a classic trick that crops up all over the various sets of these films, making the environments look larger than they actually are. Near the top of the image, you can also clearly see the large scenic backdrop that represented the blinding desert landscape outside the windows of Tosche Station.

While we’re here, we might as well check out a few other angles from before I built Tosche Station:

Anyway, who knows how long this project will last, but I’ll enjoy it for as long as my brain will allow. For the next steps, I’ll be using those multi-page drawings…more on that process soon!